There’s a telling moment tucked into the plodding second half of Mind of Mine, Zayn Malik’s first major release since leaving One Direction. He’s singing over a veiny, strobing synth — the kind he never could’ve played with as part of the world’s most popular boy band. "I’m sippin’ pink Lucozade," he drawls, "and blazin’ on that newfound haze." The phrasing is suggestive, and the substance might be unfamiliar. Could it be some kind of promethazine-codeine cousin? It’s actually closer to British Gatorade. Zayn’s replenishing his electrolytes and staying hydrated, not mixing narcotics. It’s a lesson you’d do well to carry into the rest of Mind of Mine, an album-length fizzy sports drink desperate to convince you it’s something more dangerous.
Zayn left One Direction just over a year ago, and his stated desire to live like a "normal 22-year-old" outside of the public eye has gone unfulfilled. He’s feuded with collaborators and his former bandmates on Twitter; he’s slurped orange juice on the cover of The Fader; he’s brought a dozen writers into the functioning bar he built in his backyard. He’s dating Gigi Hadid, one of the world’s reigning supermodels, and he’s put her in his music videos. We can dispel the notion there’s anything normal about his life. To hear Zayn tell it, recording Mind of Mine gave him a chance to escape the tyranny of label-dictated boy band pablum. This album gave him the opportunity to write and sing however he wanted; this album is giving us the opportunity to hear him perform music he’s passionate about for the first time in his career.
"If I would sing a hook or a verse slightly R&B, or slightly myself, it would always be recorded 50 times until there was a straight version that was pop, generic as fuck," Zayn told The Fader. "I just wasn’t convinced with what we were selling. I wasn’t 100 percent behind the music. It wasn’t me."
He’s fortunate that his true musical interests happen to parallel the sound of pop music in 2016. Mind of Mine is a love letter to male pop-R&B from an avowed, observant listener, and the shadows of that genre’s most successful contemporary artists linger over almost every song. "Pillowtalk" and "Truth" are guitar-centric and billowing, like Costco versions of the music on Miguel’s Wildheart; Kehlani feature "Wrong" and single "Like I Would" sound just like The Weeknd, solemn and depraved. (The latter’s fusion of "Can’t Feel My Face" and Justin Timberlake’s "Cry Me a River" is so brazen I’m almost impressed.) The album’s introspective moments suggest Frank Ocean, the genre’s beloved poet-hermit, and its upbeat ones suggest Jeremih. Zayn’s disdain for One Direction aside, the strategy he employs on Mind of Mine isn’t so different from the one the band uses: acknowledge your influences, borrow from them liberally, and paper over the cracks with capable singing. The toolbox is new, but the techniques haven’t changed.
Zayn's influences are about to become his competitors
If Mind of Mine feels novel, it has less to do with its sound than the gulf between Zayn’s chosen path and the music he was making before. When young men make the leap from a boy band into a solo career — or attempt to transition into musical "adulthood" — they typically build on a familiar sound. Timberlake’s Justified remains the gold standard for this kind of album, but it didn’t represent a huge departure from the music he was making with NSYNC on Celebrity; he’s more adventurous and ambitious on "Cry Me a River" and "Like I Love You" than on a song like "Girlfriend," but they’re branches on the same tree. Despite their impish handsomeness and talent-show origins, One Direction was largely a traditional rock band, one more likely to tip its cap to Journey, Big Star, and Fleetwood Mac than Michael Jackson or Usher. If you made a Venn diagram with the spheres of influence surrounding each record, they’d fail to overlap.
When Zayn was still part of One Direction, it was easy to be seduced by his potential. He was the band’s best, most distinct vocalist; tumbling into one of his solo passages felt like biting into a ham sandwich on white bread and finding it spiked with hot sauce. You can hear it in the rowdy "No Control," an expression of unbridled lust just as effective as anything on Mind of Mine: "Lost my senses, I’m defenseless / Her perfume’s holdin’ me ransom," he howls. He gives the song its heart.
This is the problem with Mind of Mine: Zayn can’t rely on that pack of panting boys for distinction anymore. If the album is a success, all of the artists listed above as influences take on different roles. They’re more than just contemporaries. They’re competitors, and they all offer a signature quality Zayn is still trying to find. He lacks Abel Tesfaye’s fallen-angel purity and Miguel’s renegade spirit, Jeremih’s inventiveness and Ocean’s generational pen. If you want to look at his partners on the remix of Chris Brown’s filthy "Back to Sleep," you can hold Usher’s smoothness and Brown’s malleability over him. He’s still hunting for that differentiator.
Mind of Mine is a debut record, one made after five years in what’s been painted as a sort of musical captivity, and Zayn has plenty of time to iron out the kinks in his solo work. But he’s jumped to the highest echelon of male pop stardom with impressive speed, and he’s desperate to be taken seriously. It’s hard to imagine a more stone-faced collection of songs about being young, beautiful, and inebriated.
The lyrics are mostly terrible
And the lyrics — all of which were written by Zayn — are mostly terrible. Take "Pillowtalk," which invites you to marvel at the discovery that beds can be used for more than sleep and sexual activity. "It’s a paradise / And it’s a war zone," he groans. It reads like a feverish diary entry written on an end table after an unusually dramatic wet dream. If you can take your mind off of what he’s singing, Zayn’s voice remains husky, versatile, and compelling. He can flip from wounded to menacing to libidinous and back like he’s toggling a switch. The album’s best songs — the woozy "It’s You" and interlude "Flower" — stick to lyrical basics and give him room to shine. ("Flower" is sung in Urdu, his father’s native language.)
The recent album that’s most like Mind of Mine was made by another former teenage pop star trying to navigate the transition into creative maturity. Justin Bieber’s Journals drew from the same recent spring of R&B and hip-hop, and it gave Bieber the space to experiment and indulge the same way Zayn does. (In hindsight, Journals looks more and more like a necessary interstitial effort, the breather Bieber needed before hooking up with Skrillex and Diplo and taking over the world again.)
There’s a major difference between the two albums: the stakes. Journals was cobbled together from a string of weekly track releases and given almost no label push; its album-length existence was an afterthought. Mind of Mine is being framed as a career-defining moment, the album that’s going to launch pop’s next great hope. I find myself wishing the latter was a little more like the former: relaxed, raw, a little bit silly. It’s obvious Zayn has some kind of spark, but he needs to give it room to catch fire. You can hear the pressure weighing on this record, and it’s stifling.